Bureau of Land Management HQ Move to Colorado Met with Optimism and Skepticism

photoBLM Photo

The news that the Interior Department plans to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, was greeted with groans in much of Washington while residents of the small Western Slope city greeted it with a sort of been-there-done-that demeanor.

“Grand Junction is all about boom and bust,” said former mayor Jim Spehar. “Uranium, oil shale, natural gas, we’ve ridden them up and we’ve ridden them down. Lots of people think this will be just another roller-coaster ride.”

But, said Spehar, even though Grand Junction expects to get only 27 of the high-level headquarters jobs, the ripple effects through the local economy should be substantial, as lobbyists, ranchers, miners and others with financial and public policy interests in BLM lands add Grand Junction to their must-visit list.

While that may be good for the town’s travel and lodging businesses, Spehar, himself a former lobbyist for environmental causes, notes it may not be all that great for lobbyists. He recalled making many “one-stop shopping” trips to Washington a few times a year, visiting the BLM, National Park Service, Council on Environmental Quality, and Congressional representatives in just a few days time.

Guardedly optimistic

Spehar is not the only Western environmentalist who is guardedly optimistic about the proposal. “It’s a smart idea, and one that ultimately will benefit the region and its public lands,” said Jonathan P. Thompson writing in High Country News recently. He is the author of Colorado Book Award finalist River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Thompson doesn’t disagree with the notion that moving the BLM westward will give more influence to “extractive” industries and their representatives. But he says it will also give more influence to western environmentalists.

“I’m not worried about Westerners getting more control over the BLM, because I’m pretty damned sure most Westerners are not ideologically predisposed to lay waste to our public lands,” said Thompson.

“If sagebrush rebels get more influence, so will regional environmental groups that don’t have the cash to base people in Washington, D.C. Westerners who are alarmed by the de facto privatization of public lands known as oil and gas leasing can protest not just at their state BLM office, but at the national office as well,” he said.

Not so sanguine

Perhaps so but Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, isn’t so sanguine.

“This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda. Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt’s home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability,” Grijalva said. The BLM officials based in Washington are here to work directly with Congress and their federal colleagues, and that function is going to take a permanent hit if this move goes forward. The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that’s the administration’s real goal here.”

The Interior Department outlined its plans in a 17-page letter that argues the move — which would leave only a handful of staffers in Washington — will make the BLM more efficient and more responsive to the needs of Western residents and industries.

“This implementation plan will delegate more responsibility and authority down to the field, optimize services available to the American people, is demonstrably cost-effective, and will provide an increased presence closer to the resources the BLM staff manages,” Joe Balash, assistant Interior Secretary wrote to Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior and environment.

Under the plan, 27 leadership posts would go to Grand Junction with the rest being scattered in Denver and in Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Staffers were told at a recent meeting that they would be leaving Washington by the end of next year. Many said the move would be a hardship because it would upset the economies of many two-career families, according to a Washington Post report. Some expressed fear that, while the cost of living may be lower outside Washington, their pay could also be cut because of lower living costs.

In June, the Trump Administration proposed moving the U.S. Agriculture Department to Kansas City but the move was blocked by an amendment introduced by Rep. Eleanor Norton (D-DC).

The BLM manages one in every 10 acres of land in the United States, and approximately 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. While many of those public lands are in the West, the lands and minerals administered by the agency are found in every state in the country and encompass forests, mountains, rangelands, arctic tundra, and deserts.

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James R. Hood
James R. Hood is the editor and publisher of FairfaxNews.com. A former Associated Press editor and executive, he has more than 50 years of reporting experience.